Last year Pitchfork booked a fierce lady lineup that inspired me to write about riot grrrl’s resurgence on the festival circuit. With such a concentration of powerful women taking the stage, though—especially Sleater-Kinney, who cranked out an electric headlining set—it was easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. The sad fact is, the five female-centric groups I mentioned last year—Courtney Barnett, Ex Hex, the Julie Ruin, Sleater-Kinney, and Waxahatchee—accounted for almost half the women-led acts on the entire bill. There were just 11 in total, less than a quarter of the 45-act lineup.
This year, things aren’t much different: out of 45 acts, only 12 are led by women. Once again a couple of strong headliners, Beach House and FKA Twigs, distract from the disproportionate ratio further down the bill. And the Pitchfork Music Festival isn’t the only offender: the lineups at Bonnaroo, Coachella, and Lollapalooza all consist of roughly 75 percent all-male groups, despite the common gambit of securing at least one powerhouse female headliner in a futile attempt to say “See! We have women playing too!”
Just as troubling is the lack of genre diversity among the women who do get booked. Pitchfork is increasingly expanding beyond the indie pop and rock that usually dominate its lineup—in the past five years especially, it’s included more electronic and hip-hop musicians. But of the 97 hip-hop or electronic-music acts the festival has booked in its history, only eight have been women.
These low numbers aren’t for a lack of female performers. In Chicago, the 2016 Frontwoman Fest hosted more than 15 local groups with a variety of sounds (noise-rock, ambient, hip-hop), a larger and more diverse cast of female musicians than Pitchfork could manage to scrounge up from around the world. (This year’s Frontwoman Fest, held at the Burlington, raised $1,500 for Girls Rock! Chicago.) It’s also worth mentioning that the nine local acts on this year’s Pitchfork lineup include only four women. Grassroots movements can boost local acts into the spotlight, but that leg up won’t do women much good without real change to the entrenched patterns of gender inequality that have shaped the music industry.
“I actually think that Pitchfork does a better job than every other festival,” says Melissa Oglesby, outreach director for Girls Rock! Chicago. “Everybody still has a long way to go, but I’m grateful that the programmers at Pitchfork are thoughtful about it.” Still, she wonders why festivals in general are so bad at booking women: “Do they feel like they don’t have a roster to draw from, or that the roster isn’t going to be as profitable or something?” These are questions worth posing, especially when even the most enlightened fests don’t top 30 percent women in their lineups.
All that said, the handful of women on this year’s Pitchfork bill makes for a good mix: the infectious pop of Carly Rae Jepsen, the frenetic footwork beats of Jlin, the fierce rock of Savages, the otherworldly R&B of headliner FKA Twigs. Clearly Pitchfork has an eye for talented women. It just needs twice as many of them—at least!
And to be fair, Pitchfork has come a long way. At the Intonation fest in 2005 (curated by Pitchfork and the predecessor of its own festival), the 27-act bill included only one female-led group and one female DJ. So maybe we can keep hoping—and maybe next year we’ll get a more equitable lineup that showcases the talents of women from as many genres as the festival does. v